Let’s relax the rules of grammar and enjoy language
The Age, October 18, 2014
Columnist, The Age.
Is a preposition a good word to end a sentence on? And can you begin sentences with a conjunction? What about if you just play a little with the spelling of a word, know wot I mean? If language is primarily about communication, and none of these things impedes clarity, then do they really matter?
One of the issues raised in the federal government’s curriculum review, the final report of which was released this week, was a concern that teachers’ grammar might not be up to scratch, which in turn might be hindering their ability to teach it.
The decline of language, like the decline of civility, is one of those “just add water” issues, guaranteed to set people harumphing and typing, venting their long-held spleen about the time they saw a “cappachino” advertised or an apostrophe that had landed on the wrong side of an s.
Often the debate plays out along generational lines, with older people lamenting that spelling and grammar ain’t what they used to be, which in turn speaks poorly of young people’s intelligence and ability to be taken seriously.
It’s a debate that never goes anywhere, because as the review noted, if teachers are under-skilled in the mechanics of English, it’s because they have not been taught it properly themselves. Therefore they may not have the skills or the confidence to teach it well, and on the cycle goes.
Look around you and it’s not difficult to find examples of grammar or spelling gone bad, even from some professional outfits. Those of us who are keen on language tend to have our own little bugbears about it: I find it hard to cope with z being used as an s, or k replacing c, especially in business names. So an outfit calling itself Krazy Kidz child care centre, for example, wouldn’t fill me with confidence, or even konfidence.
Of course punctuation, grammar and spelling matter to some extent: it would be absurd to argue otherwise. Language is rendered useless if you don’t know how to deploy it properly.
ut part of deploying it properly is understanding the context in which it is used, and allowing those “rules” to bend with it. It is ineffably dull when people bang on about the importance of archaic language conventions that have no impact on meaning; rather, they often straitjacket expression and undermine its innate fun (I’ve always found the rage against the split infinitive to be a good example of this).
The way we communicate now – its speed, its global nature – means that language is changing quickly. It is both a product of the culture and an important contributor to it. It can circumnavigate the globe in an instant, borrowing widely and voraciously as it goes. Its amorphousness is part of its joy and fundamental to its relevance.
Texting and social media are conversation: they do not have to be grammatically perfect, and in fact are more entertaining if they’re not. Use of abbreviations, in-jokes and vernacular are all ways in which we signify the nature of our relationship with the people we’re communicating with (yes, yes, with whom we’re communicating).
Harumphing about language is often simply a symptom of a power struggle: a way of hanging on to something we believe to be “right” when we can feel it slipping out from under us, or a snobbish boast about superior education or intellect. But do we know what each other means, and if we do, isn’t that all that matters?
One of the review’s many very good recommendations is that, at primary level, students should be encouraged to read more literature rather than just produce their own writing. This is a wise idea: if social media is anything to go by, one thing young people don’t need is any more practice writing about themselves. Reading high-quality writing is a great way for children to learn the formalities of language (as indeed is learning a foreign language), and when it is appropriate to use it.
In the meantime, let’s move on from the “in my day” aspect of the debate, accept that language is evolving rapidly and just admire its many permutations, while keeping clarity at its centre. Otherwise it will have all the life sucked klean out of it.
Amanda Dunn is a senior writer at The Age. Twitter: @amandadunn10